Wonder Park and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by no one
So you’re telling me that there’s a movie in theaters right now where a sex pest had to leave the movie halfway through its tumultuous production, and it’s NOT Bohemian Rhapsody!? Yes, it’s not a typo that I didn’t credit a director on this movie because the guy who at some point sat in that chair got booted off of it and got the added justice of having his name stripped from the credits; something that I’m sure Fox would have really liked to do for its movie before things got awkward at the Oscars. Even before I knew any of that though, I was not looking forward to this considering how low rent and unappealing the trailers were which makes it all the more astounding that the darn thing cost upwards of a hundred million, so it seems pretty clear we’re in for a train wreck of epic proportions. Does this movie miraculously stick the landing despite everything going against it, or are we just here to watch it flame out in spectacular fashion? Let’s find out!!
June Bailey (Brianna Denski) is your typical millennial smarty pants who was basically raised her whole life on STEM related games; the main one being an imaginary park known as WONDER PARK with fantastical rides and a staff of talking animals that she and her mother (Jennifer Garner) would work on each night before bed. Over time, June’s interest started to bleed out into the real world which started off rather dangerously with unsafe roller coasters made out of plywood and city property, but eventually she started to focus on smaller scale project with actual engineering behind them instead of trial and error until someone cracks their skull open. However… something happens. I’m not going to say WHAT because the trailers do a very good job of hiding what this movie is actually about, but there’s a tragedy that causes her to give up on her Wonder Park dreams, and since this is a Kid’s Movie the universe will not take such flagrant cynicism lying down! Thorough the power of unexplained magic, June ends up in Wonder Park itself which is run by the loyal animal staff which includes Boomer the bear, Gus the beaver, Cooper the OTHER beaver, Greta the boar, and Steve the porcupine (Ken Hudson Campbell, Kenan Thompson, Ken Jeong, Mila Kunis, and John Oliver), but has been left in disarray for some time now. See, something happened to the park as well which brought THE DARKNESS upon them (I WONDER IF HER TRAGEDY AND THEIRS ARE SOMEHOW CONNECTED!?) that caused the guests to disappear and the stuffed animals to turn homicidal; taking the group’s leader Peanut (Norbet Leo Butz), a chimpanzee with a magic marker who made the rides June and her mother thought of. So now June is stuck in the last place she wants to be with animal friends who are not very helpful and is now trying to fix an amusement park in order to save a chimp with magic powers from adorable abominations. Sounds legit if you ask me! Can June and her friends figure out how to get the park up and running again to banish the darkness once and for all? Will this exercise in engineering splendor and stuffed animal homicide be just what June needs to confront her traumas once and for all? Is it just me, or does this all sound pretty convoluted for a movie so clearly aimed at five year olds?
Yeah, it’s no surprise that this movie is pretty darn awful. Whether or not the original director was effectively replaced by someone else for the rest of the film’s production, the final product is an undisciplined and wildly incoherent mess that has SOME decent ideas and moments throughout but fails to put any of them together into a satisfying whole. This isn’t just at a scripting or structural level either as the inconsistencies extend to the characters themselves, the overall tone of the movie, and even the animation techniques employed throughout which vary wildly and not all work with the art style they’ve chosen here. Now that said, will any of this keep kids from liking it who is presumably the target audience? I’d have trouble saying for sure, though whatever positives I can say about it when trying to approach the film from that perspectives are easily overshadowed by much better movies that everyone else can enjoy as well, and at least those aren’t gonna make most everyone in the audience utterly dumbfounded or confused by the bizarre places this movie chooses to go. Seriously, if it turned out that Colin Trevorrow stepped in and shadow directed this at the last minute, I’d only be mildly surprised.
So what about this movie makes it so darn strange in the first place? The primary issue with the film and what makes it such an odd experience to sit through is that it has a VERY hard time juggling its tone which goes to such wild extremes with all the grace of an uncoordinated duck. Someone in the office wanted to make an intensely emotional family drama while someone else wanted to make a lavish recreation of old school slapstick comedy and everyone thought that bringing the two together would be like chocolate and peanut butter which it ABSOLUTELY was not. The movie is built on a flimsy sense of world building to begin with and with no one crafting a unified vision the whole narrative gets distracted by unimportant indulgences. Too much time is spent lavishing over the animation (which is just barely above decent) as set pieces go on and on for far too long with no narrative advancement to justify how much time they take up. In most cases, the characters at the beginning of an action scene end up right back where they stared at the end of the action scene which are all an over-exuberant hodgepodge of quick cuts, fast animation, and exaggerated movements which would be okay (not great, but okay) if the film was consistent about it, but this is where things take a serious turn in the film’s OTHER great indulgence which is its attempts at heartfelt drama. What was once a movie where characters are on a makeshift go-kart with fire extinguisher rockets blowing it past actual cars has now turned on a dime and is tackling subject matter that this movie is frankly not equipped to deal with. Oh, but how the try! The film not only switches tones in terms of where the story goes; it also switches stylistically as the colors are now washed out, we’re mimicking hand held camera movement, and everything is now a VERY intense close up on characters faces exhibiting anguish and fear. This is all supposed to convey a sense of deep human connection by destroying the barriers between us and the characters, but all I could think about while watching it (besides how jarring of a turn it was) is just how big these characters heads are which don’t do much for evoking the sense of bittersweet angst they’re going for. As it turns out, animation is tricky like that and you have to plan your art style WAY ahead of time to stay consistent with your tone and cinematography! WHO KNEW!?
A good comparison of what this movie is trying to do would be The LEGO Movie which is also a frenetically paced Kid’s Movie with a pretty sizable gut punch located somewhere with in it, but what made that movie work so well is how tightly controlled everything was. The narrative in that film works because it’s built on a strong foundation that allows the world to unfold naturally even when its indulging in sight gags, random asides, and just plain weirdness. This movie on the other hand is built on a poorly explained set of rules which requires the characters to constantly catch the audience up to speed as to why certain things are happening (the ALL IS LOST moment is especially egregious and perfunctory in this regard), so it never feels like we naturally arrive to anything throughout this film; not helped of course by the abundance of the aforementioned inconsequential action scenes which only gives the story less time to try and make sense. Now I’m not trying to tease out the metaphysical implications of an imaginary park filled with talking animals and frankly it’s a basic enough premise that it almost doesn’t even require much explanation. The problem is that the movie THINKS that all this needs explanation and so moments that should be character focused are instead mechanic and lore focused which are just not interesting to watch. As much as I think the animation will PROBABLY be enjoyable for younger audiences, scenes like that slow the pacing down to a crawl and will probably live kids restless between the set pieces.
Now I want to take a minute here and try to say something nice because as negative as I’ve been so far, there are definitely worse animated movies out there (*cough* Ratchet & Clank *cough* The Emoji Movie *cough*) and it’s worth pointing out the attempt here to make something meaningful even if it ultimately failed to pull it off. June is kind of generic as a character but the actor does a decent job in the role and I was never really bothered by her like I was with some of the other characters like the beavers and the bear. John Oliver is annoying as well, but at least he has great delivery to compensate for the lousy material, and I actually did like Mila Kunis as Greta who actually has a heartfelt moment here and there. The best part of the movie though has to be Norbet Leo Butz as Peanut because his story most directly connects to June and the scenes between them are the one time where the movie allows the subtlety of their interactions to speak more than the literal words coming out of the characters mouths. No one has to say out loud that his fear and anxieties are a reflection of her own because the scene SHOWS that through solid animation, decent scripting, and great delivery. Their scenes are a brief glimpse into the kind of movie this could have been if it managed to reconcile its two disparate halves, but sadly he’s in the movie so little that it doesn’t make much of a difference to the film as a whole. Also, if I were to praise one part of the animation, I do think that the stuffed animal zombies are well executed as the primary antagonists. The juxtaposition of their cute design with their malicious intent is effective, and the way they’re animated as a swarming mass makes them come off as legitimately threatening whenever they show up. If there’s one thing that kept me consistently entertained, it was watching these malicious little monsters wreak havoc!
If there’s nothing else I can say about this, the film is definitely swinging for the fences with everything that it tries to do, but with so many plates spinning some of them are bound to fall to the floor and make the whole act look amateurish in the process. It’s like an odd couple situation where the animators are off doing their own thing on whatever whim strikes them while the writers are fastidiously cleaning up after them and trying desperately to justify their behavior while also getting really dark and personal about it for some reason. Someone needed to get these two things to meet somewhere in the middle, and while some may argue that it couldn’t be helped since the director was fired, the truth is that there are a lot of hands on an animated feature and everything isn’t just left to the one person at the top and he was fired rather late into the production as well. This movie’s problems seem baked into its very foundation and why Paramount spent a hundred million dollars is a mystery that I can only assume is either the Sunk Cost Fallacy (apparently they’re ALREADY invested in a television spin off) or a scheme right out of The Producers that went off the rails at some point. I don’t recommend watching this in theaters even if you’re a pretty sizable animation buff, but maybe check it out on a home release just to see how wildly inconsistent this thing is on basically every level of film making. We’re certainly not starving for examples of bad animated films, but at least this one is UNIQUELY unBEARable! Get it? Because there’s a bear in the movie.